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What Is Ignition Timing and How Does It Affect Your Engine?
December 23, 2022

What Is Ignition Timing and How Does It Affect Your Engine?

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Small things can affect your engine performance, and ignition timing is one of them.

Combustion engines are engineered with complex designs and structures that all work together to create one end product. Your car’s engine consists of many more things than just pistons and internal components, one of them being ignition timing.

Sensors measure various parameters to get your engine running properly. Ignition timing plays a critical role in any combustion engine—here’s how it functions and affects your engine.

What Is Ignition Timing?

Ignition timing takes place during the compression stroke, making it relevant on most petrol-based vehicles. The compression stroke is how the piston and valves act in a junction during a revolution. Ignition timing is the timing of the spark relative to the air-fuel mixture in the combustion chamber. The vehicle’s ECU uses its equipped sensors to monitor engine speed, load, and other parameters to adjust ignition timing accordingly.

This ultimately results in better engine performance and fuel efficiency and is commonly altered by performance shops to reap more power with little to no additional modifications. Information regarding ignition timing, among other valuable parameters, can be gathered using your OBD-II port and an OBD-II device (and a suitable diagnostic application).

How Does Ignition Timing Affect Engine Performance?

Many manufacturers have their own versions of variable valve timing (VVT), which is highly beneficial and critical for engine performance. The valve opening and closing adjustability results in better efficiency and more power over those that do not feature VVT.

You (or an authorized shop) can advance or retard the ignition timing of your vehicle with the help of some ECU tuning. If tuned properly, you can get noticeably more power out of the same setup. On the contrary, you may miss out on extra power if done improperly.

Even vehicles that aren’t tuned or modified can result in better performance with proper ignition timing and suffer from improper ignition timing. Certain manufacturers have dedicated software, such as VW/Audi’s VCDS, that can look beyond the check engine light beyond the codes that can measure such parameters. For those that own other manufacturers, dedicated Timing Lights can be used to gather such information.

What Happens if Your Engine Isn’t Timed Correctly?

Ignition timing is also critical since it is one of the factors your engine’s efficiency depends on, though that is the least of your concerns. In prolonged cases, improper spark timing will inevitably damage the engine over its lifetime.

For interference engines with timing belts and chains, failure in such components will result in catastrophic engine failure, likely requiring a direct replacement. In addition, when the valves and the pistons meet during an engine rotation, it leaves irreversible damage to the cylinder head and typically even more.

The difference between interference and non-interference motors is the way the valves open. Interference engines open one or more valves to accommodate the piston’s full rotation. Alternatively, as the name insinuates, non-interference engines do not have to deal with such potential problems as the pistons and valves never meet.

Ignition Timing Is More Important Than You Realize

Ignition timing is one of the many parameters that prove to be important on any vehicle. However, a timing service will typically be a higher expense, as the job requires many labor hours. Preventative maintenance can mediate potential problems, but it’s better to identify them using the proper tools.

There’s no need to blindly replace parts to mediate an issue when dedicated tools exist to help identify the problem. In addition, OBD-II scanners made it easier to narrow down any issues your vehicle may be having.


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